What’s not to like about household goods giants Reckitt Benckiser Group (LSE: RB) and Unilever (LSE: ULVR)?

Bathroom blitz

The two companies offer the perfect blend of domestic drudgery and global ambition. They sell the boring, practical stuff that people use almost every single day, and drop thoughtlessly into their shopping trolleys whenever they hit the supermarket. In the case of Reckitt Benckiser, that means Harpic, Dettol, Cillit Bang, Nurofen, Vanish, Clearasil and Calgon. For Unilever, it spells Axe/Lynx, Comfort, Domestos, Dove, Flora, Omo and Surf. They sell plenty more besides, but I lack the space.

The exciting part is that they sell this humdrum stuff in around 200 countries across the world. This gives them fantastic diversification because when, say, the West is retrenching consumers in countries as diverse as Egypt, South Africa, Peru, Russia and Singapore may be feeling flush. In fact, Unilever’s recent growth has been best in some of the world’s worst hit economies, notably Brazil, Russia, and China. Everybody wants clean bathrooms, fresh clothes, soft skin and flowing hair, wherever they are in the world.

Global power spray

The result is that they have been the perfect way to play the emerging markets boom and crucially, the bust as well. When Chinese, Brazilian, Russian and India consumers were feeling wealthier, they upgraded to Reckitt Benckiser’s and Unilever’s brands. When they felt slightly less wealthy they cut back on life’s luxuries rather than essentials, as investors in global spirits giant Diageo and fashion house Burberry Group can testify.

Reckitt Benckiser has shown a clean pair of heals to race ahead 111% over the past five years while Unilever is up 58%, thrashing the 6% growth across the FTSE 100. There’s nothing humdrum about that level of outperformance. They’ve also sparkled over the last year, growing 12% and 6%. respectively, in marked contrast to the hefty 12% drop on the FTSE 100, which hit its high of just over 7,100 almost exactly a year ago.

Health and beauty

Naturally, given their global clout, neither stock is correlated with the fortunes of the UK economy. Unilever’s euro dividend should benefit from recent sterling weakness. Reckitt Benckiser endured the recent stronger pound, which hit overseas profits once converted back into sterling, but should be helped by recent Brexit-inspired weakness.

RB reported “a good start to the year” in its recent first quarter trading statement, with the company on track to meet full year targets of 4%-5% like-for-like revenue growth. Unilever continues to trail its rival, with Q1 results showing underlying sales up 4.7% but falling 2% due to a 7.1% negative currency headwind. 

There’s one thing not to like about these stocks: they routinely trade at a premium price. Today, investors value Reckitt Benckiser at a whopping 25.51 times earnings, while Unilever is only marginally behind at 23.48. The result is that the yields are a humdrum 2.08% and 2.83%, respectively. Every time I write about these stocks I warn about their hefty valuations. And every time I return, they’ve justified those valuations.

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Harvey Jones has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Unilever. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Burberry, Diageo, and Reckitt Benckiser. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.